Walk the line
Boey Kim Cheng on pacing, rhythm, and the perambulatory soundtrack of The Singer and Other Poems
By Yeow Kai Chai
Unimaginable it may be for millennials and zoomers, but back in 1989 – a staggering 33 years ago – poetry wasn't exactly commonplace. The Internet was fledgling, and it would be more than a decade before social media emerged and gave birth to Instapoetry and one-click shareable content.
Before the millennium, nobody had the temerity to call himself/herself a poet, unless he or she had a collection printed by a respectable publisher and ideally endorsed by one of a few academic-poets on the National University of Singapore campus. It was a rare and rarefied honour to be considered a poet.
Born in the year of Singapore's nationhood, a then-24-year-old literature honours undergraduate by the name of Boey Kim Cheng arrived on the scene, his voice fully-formed with an assured collection, Somewhere Bound (Times Books International, 1989). He was not part of any identifiable generation, although his university peer, Felix Cheong, would come out with his own collection almost a decade later.
Since then, Boey has remained a singular voice, pursuing his preoccupations – homeland, identity, nostalgia, and exile – over six other accomplished books, including a collection of essays, Between Stations (Giramondo, 2009), and a novel, Gull Between Heaven and Earth (Epigram Books, 2017).
He emigrated to Australia in 1997 and returned to Singapore in 2013 as a writer-in-residence at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU). He currently works as an Associate Professor at NTU's School of Humanities, although he plans to return to his home in Berowra, an outer suburb of Northern Sydney.
His latest poetry book, The Singer and Other Poems (Cordite Books, 2022), is a watershed. Unlike his earlier verse collections which are steeped in the lyric tradition, here he often dispenses with end lines, and go full-on prose poetry. The train of thought is exploratory yet newly at peace – as much reckoning as pointing a way forward, whatever "forward" means. He himself confesses at the end of this interview: "I don't know if there will be another book."
YKC: The Singer and Other Poems takes its title from The Singer sewing machine, a familiar presence in many Singaporean households from a particular generation. The title poem is an intimate and moving tribute to your mother, Grace Cheong Mui Mui, and her life. What makes you decide to name the collection after it?
BKC: The manuscript in its initial stages had 'Kolkata Raga' as its title poem, the earliest poem to be written over a period of 10 years since my last collection Clear Brightness. But when the poem 'The Singer' arrived a year or so after my mother's death, I felt it was more apt, more resonant and embodied the elegiac spirit of the collection more truly.
My mother didn't leave much behind, and the Singer was something that had travelled with her from her days as a seamstress and remained to the end. I have strong memories of her working the pedal and piston, of being on the floor crawling around the spilled over fabric, circling around and sometimes annoying her, my mother who was so immersed in her creations, and that is how I would like to remember her.
Looking at the Singer, and wondering what to do with it, I knew I had to save it, and in a sense save the mother and son by installing them in the poem, and then as the title poem. Besides, it also underscores the presence of music as motif, theme and inspiration in many of the poems in the collection.
YKC: The book is divided into three sections: ''Little India Dreaming,' 'The Middle Distance,' and 'Sydney Dreaming.' I understand you've credited the structure to the advisement of your editor, Bella Li. Can you talk more about your working relationship with her, and how the book arrived at its final sequence?
BKC: What I submitted to Cordite was a manuscript, a loose collection of poems accumulated over 10 years or more, and Bella turned it into a book. I was very fortunate to have a wonderful poet like Bella as my editor.
She was sensitive, astute, imaginative, also very exacting, precise and honest. I was still too close to the poems to see the narrative, the structural flow, and her intervention was crucial. Out went a handful of poems, including a longish prose poem sequence, because they had no place in the book. She introduced the three-part structure which, besides giving the book its coherence and flow, enhanced its musical movement. She was rigorous, very sharp, picked out flaws so easily missed by lesser editors, and really helped me discover the book that I couldn't really see at first.
YKC: In the preface, you wrote about the reversal of roles between you and poetry. "When I was younger, poetry carried me posthaste, high on the fuel of experience and freshness of thought…In middle age the roles are reversed – I am the mule, the porter, learning the weight and heft of the poem so I can carry it long-distance." Can you elaborate what poetry means to you these days?
BKC: The first few collections were written while the experiences were still fresh, especially Another Place, which came in a fevered rush at the end of my first trip to India. Sometimes it felt akin to being possessed and you felt transported to a state of self-oblivion, ecstasy almost. But it didn't last, and you come down from it exhausted, and suffered long periods of not writing.
The poetry needed the fuel, the combustion of experience to get its engine going. But in the middle age slow time has taken over, and I don't rush the poems. In fact, partly out of laziness, partly out of the patience you learn over time, I have started resisting poetry, and don't chase after the first line, the inchoate idea or image and wait sometimes for months, years even, before I start on it in earnest. I carry the poem a long time in my head, and maybe try to let it lead me to where it wants to go, till I can hear its music, before I write the first lines.
My practice, if you can call it that, has changed, but the basic tenets that got me writing in the first place, these I still cling to. Keats' idea of poetry as an instrument of "soul-making," Frost's belief in the poem as "a momentary stay against confusion," these have remained unshakeable.
YKC: Yet, in the midst of carrying "the baggage from a past life" and "the weight of new experiences," there is newfound ease, a relaxation of pace, very much in the vein of the flâneur, which Shirley Lim identifies in her introduction to the collection. Is the pacing influenced by your venture into memoir writing and biography, in Between Stations and Gull Between Heaven and Earth, respectively?
BKC: Yes, certainly, it's come from reading and writing prose. The longer lines and poems, the stretching of the lyric, the extending of thought and idea, the tracking of the narrative, these have come from writing the essays in Between Stations and crafting the narrative scenes in Gull. The lyric form was too restrictive, the shorter lines and clean line-breaks didn't allow for the digressions, the meanderings, didn't allow the thought or image to drift and wander.
Now, I let it wander a lot more; it's like taking the line for a walk, to use Paul Klee's "phrase," and let it go where it will. There is a lot of actual walking in the poems, and the pace is measured, steady, if not leisurely. The pace of a middle-aged man. The relationship between walking and poetry has been written about a lot – Wordsworth, Stevens allegedly composed poems as they walked – and there is certainly a strong, almost physical connection between the rhythms in the poems and the pace of the walks that started and shaped the poems.
YKC: This collection has probably the longest lines in your poetry. The beautifully cascading, contemplative lines remind me of Jorie Graham's, and the deceptive levity even Frank O'Hara's. The effect is of the reader (and writer) being buoyed, swept along by a river, or waves of an ocean, letting the waves take them to whatever destination, rather than them riding the waves, commandeering and in charge. Is that a fair reading?
BKC: Certainly, it's connected to the pacing, to taking the line for a long walk. Going the distance with an image or feeling and thought, and also letting the cadences and music take over. I suppose it's also about slowing it down, listening to the pauses, and being more patient, unhurried. The long lines are also perhaps the result of listening more to jazz in middle age, and perhaps picking up on how to improvise, extend the line, riff on a theme, improvise, travelling as far as you can on the chords and melodies, and taking a different route each time.
I love the way each jazz musician solos on a track, going off into a new space of his own making, as far as he can, and then coming back to the melody, to the group, the trio, quartet or quintet. There is also Indian music, the sitar or sarod with its cascades or sheets of sound in 'Little India Dreaming' and 'Kolkata Raga.' It's also the music of memory, one memory triggering another, way leading to way, to use Frost's words, and all you have to do is to surrender to the flow. Let it ride you, rather than you riding it.
YKC: The first poem 'Little India Dreaming' is a surrealistic reel through childhood and adulthood, migration and homecoming. The languid, sinewy lines are suddenly interrupted by short, disjunctive, truncated phrases: "All gone now. Diaspora. Dispersed. Disappeared. Why have you come back? Why come back? Back home, home, om, om." Can you talk about how you've employed rhythm?
BKC: That's a moment of syncopation in 'Little India Dreaming,' and might have been jazz- or raga-inspired. It breaks up the regularity, interrupts the flow with a moment of pause, reversal, revaluation. This is a prose poem and what makes it more poetry than prose is the rhythm, and rhythm is not all regular beats; it is variegated, textured, layered. I like the idea of "the music of the line," the way the line breathes and moves, the way it sings. What makes the words move in a good poem is the music behind them. As Eliot says: "Words move, music move/ Only in time." For me rhythm is never mechanical or abstract, but something corporeal, the movement of words embodying the emotional pulse of the moment, tuned in to the music of what happens, to quote Heaney.
YKC: The youthful, peripatetic longing in your earlier collections, Somewhere Bound (1989), Another Place (1992), and Days of No Name (1995), appears to be replaced by an autumnal realisation that this search is rooted in finding a home, whatever one makes of it. After searching for decades, what does home mean to you now?
BKC: The earlier pre-migration collections were driven by a longing to escape the confines of home, and the concomitant magnetic pull of elsewhere that was also a quest for home, which I equated with a sense of peace, of freedom and beauty. When I settled in Australia, I thought migration would resolve for me the issue of home, that the crossing over would be a big step in deciding what and where home is. Far from doing that, it has made it much more complex, ambivalent.
In the first few years as a migrant I felt the tug of Singapore strongly and came to see it as home, or the home I had lost. Then I glimpsed it as a place in between the two countries, a liminal, imagined space and moment when the two places, and the past and present overlap. Now, as an Australian expatriate and ex- Singaporean citizen, I am more certain that the plot of land I have in Berowra is home. I feel grounded there. But then, as Frost says: "Home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take that in." If I still believe in that, then Singapore will always be home.
YKC: In 'The Golden Temple,' you recount a breezy, even thrilling, rickshaw ride towards The Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab. I am struck by your empathetic comparison and contrast between the rickshaw wallah (who "must be the age I was then, and he is tied to this machine like I was to my M16") and yourself. As someone who have travelled around the world, what have you observed about humanity? Are people more alike or more different?
BKC: I was lucky to travel before globalisation became an unstoppable tide that swept across places and cultures, erasing differences and turning many places into a kind of Anyplace. The distinctiveness of each place stood out much more then – the spirit of the place, the physical details, and of course the people, their history, their daily lives, their practices, their struggles, their aspirations and dreams.
But the best part about travel is discovering a shared, common humanity amidst the differences. The moments of connection, of meeting and encounter, these are surely the highlights of any journey. And also the experiences of kindness and hospitality.
I can recall vividly the strangers who helped me when I was lost – the young Kashmiri man who took me to his home when I arrived in Srinagar in the middle of the night and fighting between the army and separatists; the family who fed us when we were lost and hungry in the Brunei jungle during army training; many more instances of kindness like these. And of course seeing myself in the other – my dream of home mirrored in the eyes of young men and women, travellers and natives, restless and searching.
YKC: There's a cinematic headiness to many of your accounts set in India, ranging from your evocation of Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy to the Sleepwalking section in the poem 'Kolkata Raga.' What is it about India which hits a chord, and draws you back again and again?
BKC: India has been the spiritual centre of my life since my first trip there. As a young man I took my burning questions there, drawn by romantic ideas of a pilgrimage or a spiritual quest. The experiences I had really took me out of myself. The cold hands of the homeless, the look in the eyes of the destitute, the children especially, the quiet spirituality of some of the volunteers at Mother Theresa's. Then the moments of encounter and friendship with fellow travellers, some really amazing individuals – India had freed something in them, transformed them so profoundly they could never go back to their old lives.
Then there is the country itself, so old, worn, ancient, some of the most tired, exhausted landscapes I have seen, and there is also vibrancy, inspiring colours, the lush valleys and mountains in the north. You need a few lifetimes to see India, to understand it. Perhaps to understand India is to understand yourself. Perhaps that is why I feel so drawn to it.
YKC: In the section 'BBD Bagh' of the same poem, you say Ray's "black-and-white…captures what it means to be human, to be not at home, to dwell in the dusky world between memory and dream." It's a line which captures the state of suspension in this collection. In your previous books, the accruement of details piece together a vivid picture of what is lost, or being erased. Here the details invoke haziness, or what you wonderfully call "sfumato" – alluding to the painting technique of allowing tones and colours to shade gradually into one another, producing softened outlines or hazy forms. What precipitated the change?
BKC: Perhaps it's the way of seeing that has changed. And remembering. There are no longer clear outlines – borders and boundaries blur and things bleed into another as you get older and your vision becomes bi- or multi-focal. Especially as a migrant, you acquire this reflex of seeing one thing through the lens of another. There is also the revisionist impulse, to see the past differently each time you remember or it comes back to you. There is no longer any fixed or stable perspective. There are ways of seeing, to quote John Berger, and not a single absolute way.
YKC: 'The Sea Remembers' epitomises the cycle of reclamation which propels your poetry, a Sisyphean struggle to find "clues to where they have gone." Your predominant concerns – the changing morphology of the Singaporean skyline and the parent-child relationship – are all there, but it seems that you have come to terms with the possibility that you may never know the answer(s). True?
BKC: Yes, maybe it's a hopeless task. To ask questions of the dead and the disappeared and expect answers. But as Rilke counsels, learn to live the questions and perhaps one day they will turn into answers. The remembering is vital for another reason – the dead people and vanished places would be utterly forgotten unless they have a place in our lives, in our memory. It's a salvage mission too, to save whatever is still there, and to piece whatever you can together with the words.
YKC: 'Time is a river, time is a bridge,' set in Italy, is such an ambitious prose poem, traversing geography, time, travelogue, art history, and memoir, moving from describing Ansgar, a Danish traveller who comes to Arno "each spring since his wife's death" to imagining "seventeen-year-old Michelangelo honing his art as he anatomises corpses from the basilica hospital." Can you walk us through this poem, and what inspired it?
BKC: I was revisiting Florence in early middle age, and trying to find the church where I had first seen Michelangelo's wooden sculpture of Christ crucified. I was spellbound when I saw it as a young backpacker, and for many years the postcard of it was a sort of personal altar for me, wherever I lived in.
Crossing the Arno I experienced a sense of peace and a kind of homecoming, with the lambent, molten light on the river, and when I finally stood in the church again, I had a moment of illumination, or something close to it. I encountered again the young traveller I was then, and Ansgar and my friend, both of whom I had not seen again. I was filled with immense gratitude and feelings so profound that I knew I had to write about it. But I didn't for a few years, and when the poem arrived, it came as a slow, lingering moment of illumination. It didn't take many drafts to get to where it is now. Unlike most of the other poems.
YKC: In 'Santa Maria del Popolo,' you reference Thom Gunn's 'In Santa Maria del Popolo,' which is about the latter's visit to the church in Rome which houses the painting The Conversion of Saint Paul by Caravaggio.
You preface your own poem with the last and ambivalent line from Gunn: "Resisting, by embracing, nothingness", and alluding to Gunn's line in your own last line: "in an embrace/only art can give/as it resists the nothingness that is light." Are you reaffirming Gunn's sentiments regarding man's perpetual need to hold out for hope and redemption, even as Gunn himself admits he is "hardly enlightened"?
BKC: For me some of the most compelling poems about religion and faith are written by agnostics or non-believers. Larkin's 'Church Going' and Gunn's poems are compellingly honest, and the scepticism, the doubt ironically reveals more about Christian spirituality than more straightforwardly affirmative poems.
I first read Gunn's poem when I was discovering existentialist philosophy, and it embodied so powerfully for me how doubt, despair, and the terrible dark night of the soul can express belief and spiritual illumination much more convincingly than pure testimonies of faith. And Gunn's credo in the last lines – a Modernist belief that art can save, can create order out of chaos and provide some redemption in its coherence-making, the paradox that true light is born of darkness – that captures so memorably the human condition. It's also a tenet shared by other Movement poets like Larkin and Jennings, whom I discovered at the same time and who like Gunn have remained staple reading.
YKC: In 'Guanajuato Troubadour,' you write: "Heavy and light are the measures of the dance/the troubadour makes to the last chords death plays/on night's guitar, as dawn breaks over the hills like peace." The troubadour is another exemplar of your keen ear and appreciation for music. Other poems are more explicit – 'Staying Alive' celebrates a late friend's affinity for the Bee Gees; 'What Love Is' quotes Chet Baker; and 'Bill Evans plays the theme from M*A*S*H' is an ode to how music becomes "a capsule that will send us beyond the present and future." I know you collect vinyl records and have an affinity for jazz, folk and rock. How has music influenced your poetry?
BKC: I used to subscribe to Pater's dictum that "all art aspires to the condition of music." When I read Eliot's Four Quartets I was mesmerised by the sheer music behind the words, and these lines : "Music heard so deeply/ That it is not heard at all, but you are the music/ While the music lasts." Good poetry works like good music – it speaks to your mind, body and soul.
I don't play music myself but as part of my training as a poet, I listen to a great deal of music – classical, jazz, rock, folk and world music. I love Mahler, Elgar as much as Coltrane, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Jackson Browne, Leonard Cohen, and gypsy flamenco. I like to think that some of these voices, the songs, the tunes have been absorbed into the rhythms and cadences of my poems. In "Guanajuato Troubadour" there is the mariachi band, mediaeval lute music, and also, as I started writing the poem, Ella Fitzgerald's rendition of 'Easy Living' crept into it. I must have been listening to the record of her accompanied by Joe Pass a lot at that time.
YKC: The cinematic detailing in the India poems is mirrored in the sanguine poems in the final section: By naming things, places, and people, 'Sydney Dreaming' and 'Souvenirs' vividly illustrate the émigré's lifelong attempt at self-narrativity and connectivity. Nothing is sedentary – the past, present and future continually revised upon new revelations. I understand you're thinking about the next phase of your life. Creatively speaking, what's next on the horizon?
BKC: Each one of the books I have written is a map of the journey I have made up to the point of its publication, an attempt to review and understand the experiences and memories of each phase of my life. I like to think of them as maps, songlines I have made, to borrow the Indigenous Australians' idea that songs mark out the routes between places, and these have served me well, to make sense of the terrain I have covered, and hopefully they have connected with readers who are also searching like me.
The way ahead is unmapped, unknown and maybe unknowable. And hopefully I will find out where I have to go as I move along. I don't know if there will be another book, but as Eliot says, "Old men ought to be explorers." Fare forward, travellers.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 4 Oct 2022